civic engagement and jobs

The National Journal’s Fawn Johnson has an article today entitled “Civic Engagement Can Help Millennials Get Jobs: Community volunteering teaches the same soft skills that employers need.” Some of the underlying evidence is ours. For instance, we have found that rates of civic engagement predict rates of employment at the community level.  That may be because individuals get jobs through civic engagement or because engaged citizens address problems in their communities (such as underperforming schools or crime) that stand in the way of jobs. At the individual level, students who are civically engaged (even as a requirement) perform better in school, perhaps because civic engagement imparts skills and motivates them to study.

Johnson quotes two of my friends and colleagues, Generation Citizen’s Scott Warren and the American Democracy Project’s George Mehaffy, both of whom see their important projects as related to employment.

I believe we can tighten the connection between civic engagement and work if we take two steps:

  1. We should find ways of demonstrating that individuals have obtained job-relevant skills through their civic engagement. Imagine a student who has middling grades and no plans for college. But he is an excellent organizer who regularly persuades peers to resolve violent disputes and can get people to turn out for community events. Employers might like to hire this person, but they have no way of knowing his skills. We should award meaningful and rigorous badges or certificates for civic skills, to increase their market value.
  2. We should think of civic engagement more as work and less as service–the shift that Harry Boyte has been advocating for some time. Often, civic engagement is defined in strict contrast to paid work, so that if you receive a paycheck, you are not being “civic.” The classic civic acts are then voluntary service and voting, neither of which is paid. One consequence is that we don’t take these acts fully seriously. In particular, we thank people for volunteering whether they have done any good or not. But you can strengthen your community while on the job, and you can act as if you have a job even if you are unpaid–for instance, if you are accountable for results. If we treated unpaid service opportunities as forms of work, we would take them more seriously and also make them even better pathways to employment. (And, by the way, if we can find the cash to pay volunteers, so much the better.)
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.